In years past there were very few farm sites which were not graced with long rows of lilacs, some left to grow in their natural form and others clipped into neat hedgerows. The untrimmed ones put on a spectacular display of bloom in June and at the same time infused the farmyard with the wonderful scent that only a large number of common lilacs (Syringa vulgaris) can create.
In today’s world many rural gardeners are no longer prepared to spend the countless hours in the summer that are required to keep a clipped lilac hedge looking trim and neat, nor are they inclined to install long rows of lilac in the landscape unless doing so in the perimeter shelterbelt plantings. For this purpose, however, Villosa lilac (Syringa villosa) from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Prairie Shelterbelt Program is more apt to be used. For town residents – many of whom are former farmers who carry fond memories of the lovely long rows of lilacs on their farms – and other gardeners who have smaller gardens, large plantings of common lilac simply do not fit into today’s scaled-down landscapes.
Our love of lilacs, however, has not abated and luckily there have been new cultivars developed which are better suited to today’s gardens because they are smaller in size and have a more controlled growth habit. Most of them are non-suckering, which was a positive trait when trying to establish a long, wide hedgerow on the farm but can be a nuisance in a smaller landscape. The reduced size of these cultivars, however, is what makes them so adaptable to out present-day landscapes.
Cultivars of the Meyer lilac (Syringa meyeri) are smaller types, although they still can reach up to two metres in height. They are dense shrubs with many fine, twiggy branches and this trait makes them excellent shrubs for shearing and shaping. These lilacs have the distinct advantage of being resistant to mildew which can make lilac foliage unattractive late in the season and is a particular problem with the old common lilac (S. vulgaris).
Meyer lilacs are sometimes referred to as little-leaf lilacs or dwarf Korean lilacs. One very popular cultivar is S. “Miss Kim,” which has larger leaves than other cultivars of Meyer lilac and a more upright growth habit. S. “Tinkerbelle” is also a good hybrid Meyer lilac, although it is marginally hardy in Zone 2.
Two dwarf varieties of lilac whose parentage goes back to the Villosa lilacs are S. “Charisma” and S. “Prairie Petite.” The first grows less than a metre tall and has an almost global appearance. It is non-suckering and has a very compact shape, which makes it very useful in mixed borders, near the front of shrub borders or even in foundation plantings. “Prairie Petite” is a bit larger at 1.25 metres and although compact, has a slightly more open growth habit. It blooms profusely and has upright light-pink flower panicles. “Prairie Petite” also is recommended for its heat and drought tolerance which makes it useful in foundation plantings where the conditions are hot and dry, such as along the south sides of buildings.
Lilacs are sun-loving plants but can tolerate quite a lot of shade, although the amount of bloom will decrease as the amount of shade increases. Generally they are undemanding shrubs and easy to grow. They should be pruned right after they have finished blooming so that next year’s buds are not cut off and have time to develop before freeze-up. There is room for at least one of these smaller lilac varieties in any garden – perhaps even in yours. – Albert Parsons writes from
Lilacsaresun-loving plantsbutcantolerate quitealotofshade.